GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators open the 2017 football season in less than two months.
As coach Jim McElwain looks to reach the SEC Championship Game for the third straight year, he will need to see significant strides from an offense that finished tied for 107th nationally in scoring offense (23.9 points per game) and 116th in total offense (344 yards/game). For that to happen, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier need some of their more veteran players step up, take bigger roles and ultimately have breakout seasons.
Here are five candidates, in alphabetical order, capable of having that breakout season.
1) WR Tyrie Cleveland
Tyrie Cleveland had his share of big plays as a freshman in 2016, none bigger than his 98-yard catch-and-run in the Gators’ 16-10 win at LSU. While he flashed his playmaking ability at points, Cleveland ultimately had an average debut season at Florida, hauling in just 14 passes for 298 yards and 2 touchdowns.
With a full year in McElwain’s system under his belt, Cleveland looks poised to build on his sporadic freshman-year success in 2017. The 6-foot-2, 196-pound receiver is expected to open summer practice as a starting receiver opposite junior Antonio Callaway. Plus with the added depth at the position this season — the Gators also have senior Brandon Powell, redshirt junior Dre Massey, sophomores Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond, and freshmen Daquon Green and James Robinson vying for playing time — it should be easier for Cleveland to get 1-on-1 looks on the outside this season.
2) TE DeAndre Goolsby
Like most tight ends with inexperienced starting quarterbacks, DeAndre Goolsby became a security blanket last year. When the pocket broke down or the pass rush became too severe, Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio would look to his right and throw a checkdown pass in the tight end’s direction. Goolsby made the most of those opportunities, finishing third on the team in receptions (38) and receiving yards (342) while tying with Callaway for a team-best 3 touchdown receptions.
However, his miniscule 9 yards per catch ranked fifth among the seven Gators players with at least 10 catches. Goolsby — a 6-foot-4, 244-pound senior — has shown that he has enough speed and athleticism to stretch the field. And with Florida set to start yet another new quarterback — whether it’s Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire or redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks — Goolsby should get his fair share of slant passes thrown his way.
Florida TE DeAndre Goolsby leads all returning FBS TE's with his low drop rate of just 2.56%. pic.twitter.com/nwfynHnOYR
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) June 21, 2017
3) OL Martez Ivey
After playing mostly at left guard during his first two seasons, Martez Ivey is ready to move back to his natural left tackle position.
He knows the position well. Ivey was the top-rated offensive tackle and No. 2 overall prospect in the 2015 recruiting class, according to the 247sports composite rankings.
But with David Sharpe already holding onto the left tackle position when Ivey stepped onto campus, Ivey moved inside to get playing time. His versatility and immediate contribution was invaluable considering the inexperience on Florida’s offensive line in 2016.
Ivey made strides in Year 2, earning SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors twice — the second of which came for playing tackle against South Carolina after Sharpe went down with a right ankle injury. Now, the 6-foot-5, 305-pound junior gets to move back outside and anchor the most talented offensive line McElwain has had to work with in his three years in Gainesville.
Ivey was an All-SEC second-team member last year. If all works out this season, he has the chance to be an All-American.
4) WR Dre Massey
Dre Massey’s breakout season was supposed to come in 2016. The speedy junior college transfer was supposed to be the X-factor, the missing piece McElwain sought in his offense.
But then, on the season-opening kickoff, Massey tore his right ACL. His season was over before it could begin.
One year later, Massey will return ready to prove what he couldn’t last year. He sported a bulky brace on the knee as he went through limited portions of practice this spring. When the season begins on Sept. 2, though, Massey said there will be no limitations.
5) RB Jordan Scarlett
Jordan Scarlett had a formidable sophomore season as Florida’s lead runner in 2016, tallying 889 yards and 6 rushing touchdowns.
But the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native is merely scratching the surface. Scarlett had big games throughout the 2016 season — including back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against South Carolina (134) and LSU (108) — and recorded a touchdown in six consecutive games in the middle of the season. However, his performance took a massive dip against more potent run defenses late in the year. Florida State held him to just 53 yards. Alabama limited Scarlett to 17 yards.
Scarlett is expected to be the workhorse yet again, with redshirt senior Mark Thompson, sophomore Lamical Perine, and freshmen Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons fighting for carries behind him. All it will take is one or two big runs for Scarlett to break through this season.